Is a Technological Singularity Inevitable?
This Episode is brought to you by Hello Fresh When it comes to artificial intelligence we often suggest the principle, “Keep it simple, Keep it Dumb” as otherwise you might end up under Skynet’s Thumb. But is an uncontrolled and unchainable superintelligent machine exploding into our civilization an inevitability? So today we will be talking about the concern of a Technological Singularity and like a lot of terms in science & futurism this one has shifted with time to a different meaning. I think to most folks, this calls to mind a super-intelligent machine taking over the world; akin to Skynet from Terminator or maybe the machine minds we see in the Matrix franchise or a host of others. Now the basic reasoning goes that every year, we get better with computers and robots and artificial intelligence and eventually we will make a computer smarter than humans, able to make itself even smarter, and in some rapid avalanche this will end in a near invincible super-intelligence threatening or obliterating humanity. Interestingly this isn’t really what the term was focused on when it first got used, and we’ll explain that in a bit, but what we’re here to do today, is explain what a technological singularity is – which again has a few different meanings these days, and we’ll explain what the basis for the fear of its assumed inevitability is. We’ll start by answering the question posed in the episode title, “Is a technological Singularity Inevitable?”, and the short answer is no, thanks for watching, and have a great week! The longer answer is not much is inevitable and this one relies on technology we don’t actually have yet, so presumably shouldn’t be assumed to be inevitable, being based around currently missing technology.
And indeed folks have been talking about this inevitability since before most other folks owned a home computer or there was any real internet. And this fundamentally comes down to our assumptions around Moore’s Law, which like the term “Technological Singularity”, has mutated a bit since its inception. Now the mutation here isn’t that big a deal. Once upon a time there was a chemist from Caltech named Gordon Moore who was very interested in these new semiconductor materials and transistors, and he went on to be the co-founder of Fairchild Semiconductor in 1957 and 8 years later in 1965, wrote an article for Electronics Magazine where he had been asked to predict what was going to happen to the semiconductor component industry over the next decade. He observed that all the components were able to be made smaller and smaller as they got better at making them and that he didn’t see any ceiling approaching and that these various components of integrated circuits were doubling in density every year. A decade later he revised this to every two years, and in between he co-founded a company called Intel.
As of the time of this writing he is 93, still in good health, a billionaire many times over, and has been a big patron of a number of major astronomy projects. Something that particularly impressed me since I will have celebrated the second anniversary of my wedding a few days before this episode airs, is that Moore and his wife Betty Irene Whittaker married in 1950, 72 years ago, and are still together, a feat I’d very much like to duplicate. He’s a very smart and admirable man in my book and I wanted to emphasize that since I’ll be beating up on Moore’s Law a lot in this episode and have done so before.
I should also note he never named it that, Professor Carver Mead of Caltech popularized “Moore’s Law” and nobody was ever implying it was an actual law of science or that it followed any sort of smooth curve, least of all Moore himself, who had said he expected it to end in a decade or two back in 2005 and it is generally considered well and truly done as of today. Back when this show was younger and I did our show’s original Technological Singularity Episode in 2016 folks often still argued that it was gonna keep on rolling for generations to come or that the Singularity would hit in a few more years at most, now I hear that less often. Anyway, long before all that, Moore himself outlined a number of specific and practical contributing factors, but the concept stuck and became practically canonical by the 1990s, and we saw a lot of cherry picking of graphs and tables to claim it was still being followed as the years rolled by.
I am emphasizing this because so many of the predictions about inevitability and computation come from just assuming that every couple years, computers will double in size and this claim is justified by them always having done so before. Except of course that they really never did. Computers are not an isolated example of exponential growth, at least for short periods, but folks sometimes forget that the growth is not a function of math, it’s a function of actual practical events and limitations.
There are specific reasons why things were improving so quickly and also why they eventually dropped off, and Moore’s lesser known “Second Law” also known as Rock’s Law, tell us part of why, that as the cost of computing power gets cheaper for the consumer, the cost to fulfill Moore’s Law gets more expensive. More computers in every home meant more money for R&D, but market forces cutting prices with competition and saturation results in less money for R&D. It’s a good reminder that actual people and laboratories are doing this work, and while research and development are not simply matters of raw spending, it’s a pretty big one. Another part of it is that almost all the doubling is being done by specific inventions, and their refinement, also driven by specific market forces, like everyone getting a PC, and now more of a focus on smartphones and tablets, with high-end PCs focused more on graphics cards, which controls where funding for R&D and multi-billion dollar factories are going.
Now why this matters is that for a lot of folks, contemplating the future really had this locked in as a constant thing, not necessarily that it would exactly double every couple years, but that it would double over a given interval and that if anything that interval was speeding up. This is where we get to Technological Singularity, as the term came to be defined in Vernor Vinge’s 1993 essay “The Coming Technological Singularity”, and this is essentially when the term became popular and synonymous with a super intelligent machine that rapidly made itself smarter. The concept though, is thought to date back to a conversation between Stanislaw Ulam and John von Neumann, who both worked on the Manhattan Project, which Ulam recalled as being “centered on the accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue".
Now while von Neumann is a name as connected to the concept of computers as Gordon Moore, given that he died the same year Moore co-founded Fairchild Semiconductor, 1957, it wouldn’t seem likely he was thinking of a single lone godlike computer brain at this point. And while singularity is a word that’s been popularized for its connection to black holes, it means something a bit broader in math terms and indeed the term ‘black hole’ wouldn’t be popularized till 1967, a decade after Von Neumann’s passing. Singularity is not really all that complex of a concept, it’s just hazy since it is literally the term for discussing something hard to define, or poorly defined, as mathematically it means where an object ceases to be well-behaved, difficult to predict. A curve that crosses itself is an example of this, two bits of the same line are occupying the same point , and while they are often describing mysterious effects, in general, singularities themselves aren’t. Think of a chessboard, 8x8 grid, where one side has been numbered 1 to 8 and the other lettered A thru H. Any piece we place on that board has a specific and discrete position on it - discrete meaning it is on a specific square, not halfway in between two, nor does it matter if it's centered on that square or lopsided.
It is simply there or it is not, and that square may be described as a combination of a number and letter, such as A1, B4, or H8. Incidentally this notion that a piece, or particle, is specifically in one such position, not part way in between, is the conceptual bedrock of quantum mechanics, along with the notion that you can have specific pieces, like the pawn or bishop or rook, or even a pawn turning into a queen, but the game has no place for half a pawn or losing a third of rook when it attacks a knight. Understand both of those concepts and you’re a long way to understanding how quantum mechanics works and why it's weird and counterintuitive.
It also helps explain why we tend to think there’s a hard limit on how small we can make a semiconductor transistor. However, while we can describe where any piece is on the board with any combination of A thru H and 1 through 8, one hanging around in your hand over the board while you decide what to do with it cannot be described that way. Nor could a freak piece that somehow ended up between two squares, like a coin on its edge rather than heads or tails. So too, if we stuck some chessboards together to form the sides of a cube and gave each its own 2D numbering system, a piece sitting on a corner of three or the edge of two boards is going to have more than one position or coordinate. Standard rules of chess allow only one position, so having more than makes it not well defined. Such a piece can move according to the rules on one side of the cube, but on the other side of the cube it will look as though it had disappeared, and since rules do not allow pieces to just disappear it makes such a piece problematic to understand from the standard rules point of view.
This does not mean the piece doesn’t really exist or anything, just that inside the known rules, or coordinate system, it's not behaving well. This is very often thought of in terms of horizons and not being able to see over them and is the basis for an ‘event horizon’, which includes but is not limited to a black hole. And often means unpredictable and often means no longer really existing, and it’s hard to guess which von Neumann was aiming for there, but even by his time, science fiction had regularly been discussing how human future history was likely to be unpredictable, and analogizing that to how weird the society of the Mid-20th century would look to folks in the Medieval era, let alone cavemen. All around this time we also got the famous comment from Arthur C Clarke, that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and where we also get the term Clarketech, to refer to such super-advanced artifacts.
The key notion of a Technological singularity initially is that it’s some horizon we cannot see over, and not just in the mundane sense all the future is to those looking on it, but in a vastly more game-changing way, which might include us simply no longer existing. It’s not predicting if the market will go up or down or who wins the election or which kindergartener will grow up to be a famous athlete or scientist. Rather it’s the horizon where on the other side, humanity and civilization has effectively ceased or changed so drastically we could never have predicted it and probably wouldn’t recognize it. Though mind you, that could also include humanity in a post-technological dystopia, or utopia, it's not limited to post-biological concepts, and indeed could be brought about by totally non-technological things, like us suddenly finding out magic was very real, though the term 'technological singularity’ probably wouldn’t be considered appropriate at that point. That other comment about it being “centered on the accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life” hits more to the urgency rather than slow gradual shift or evolution we might otherwise see, and obviously keys in very tight to the notion of accelerating computer improvement. I won’t put words in Vernor Vinge’s mouth, the original essay from 1993 he presented to NASA here in Cleveland, is online and easy to read, and Vinge is an excellent writer of both science and science fiction, but I’ve always felt a pretty pivotal part of the argument to inevitable technology singularity was not the notion that computers could be constantly improved with no check from physical laws or limits, but more that at some point you get this avalanche effect where something is now not only more intelligent than a human but as a result, can make a version of itself that is even smarter, which can then do the same and also faster than last time.
The critical idea here seems to be that if humans were just smart enough to make something slightly smarter than themselves, then that new machine should be able to make something at least a bit smarter than itself. Which on surface detail seems to make sense. Here is where I feel we get our third big rupture in the basic notion of Technological Singularity, and that’s this notion of self-improvement.
You might be wondering what that first and second rupture were and that’s just the endless miniaturization issue plus the idea that it's accelerating. For Moore’s Law, it doesn’t really matter if we hit a limit at the atomic scale on semiconductors because they are already much smaller than a human neuron and they operate at light speed, not the speed of a neuron, which is around a million times slower. At this point, miniaturization is less important than software or basic architecture for an AI or ways to make our chips more heat efficient or build them up more 3-dimensionally, or just make them much cheaper. Key notion is that in terms of miniaturization, comparing transistors to brain cells, the superhuman is long since reached, our best transistors are far smaller than neurons.
How much further we can push that in terms of miniaturization seems rather secondary to other problems. Now accelerating progress really is critical to the singularity idea, partially because it removes the effect of gradual and generational changes, but also because it is what really allows the idea of one lone entity to race ahead of everyone else unopposed and irresistible, the maniacal cackling machine mind launching the nukes even while people dive to unplug it only to be stopped by its newfound ability to electrocute people nearby. In a gradual improvement landscape, that whole notion goes out the window, because there’s just going to be lots of other players on the field. We’ll revisit that point shortly. Let’s come back to self-improvement for now, but with it noted that accelerating near-instant change is a very different concept than inevitable change and evolution or progress, where there’s always a horizon you can’t see beyond but as you near it you can still see well ahead of you as it moves, revealing the near future.
For self-improvement, a key thing to remember is that we have spent centuries trying to make smarter or better people and our progress is hardly one that could be thought of as creating a smarter person who turned around and made an even smarter one the next day. We don’t seem to be making people who grow up faster and grow up smarter and make newer people who grow even faster and even smarter, not in some sort of vast improvement every generation anyhow. We could debate if human intelligence has risen significantly in recent centuries and what the cause is, but there’s not really a case for a massive improvement in fundamental brain architecture which is what the concept of an accelerating machine intelligence singularity is all about, not the basic concept of forward progress. I’d also note that very few animals seem fixated on making themselves smarter or their descendants smarter, we shouldn’t be assuming some newly awakened AI is just obsessed with getting smarter. Now we do live in a time where thousands of brilliant minds do work on both making people smarter and making computers smarter, and neither group is spinning its wheels without making progress.
Nonetheless I personally can’t recall hearing about any super-intelligent minds being created recently and given my vocation I’m assuming I would have. So we might want to ask why we think them succeeding at some massive team effort to create that first superhuman intellect would imply it was going to turn around and do better than them. We said superhuman, not magic, and while such a machine or human augment would presumably be smarter than even Einstein, he didn’t work in a vacuum and for all his achievements, he didn’t come close to rivaling the sum intellectual output of humanity in his lifetime, not even in his own field.
We should probably also move past assuming any of our famous super-geniuses were in some way superhuman. Much as an explorer who is first and fastest of his peers is going to make a lot of discoveries of new landmarks on entering a new area, when it comes to brains, we’re talking fastest racecar on that track compared to other racecars, not someone flying a supersonic jet while even their smartest peers are still using a kite. Indeed the entire technological singularity notion is really about the unpredictability of civilization’s future if someone arrives flying a supersonic jet while we’re doing kites and paper airplanes. The crux of a technological singularity of this sort is that it is the flat out best at every field of intellectual endeavor simultaneously, and that probably includes being a charismatic and persuasive speaker. Without the rapid avalanche effect though, even though such a machine might be better than any human born now at everything we can do, it should have other machines, constructs, or transhumans who were at least nearly its equal in some speciality of that particular critter.
It’s not the unirvalled best at everything with no one even deserving the title of distant second. Now technology can move fast, it barely took a lifetime between us moving from kites to supersonic jets and moon landings, but on that same note, supersonic jet technology isn’t progressing at supersonic rates and we haven’t landed on the moon again for most of a lifetime. Key notion is that, mystique aside, neither Einstein or Tesla or Davinci or anyone else we have or have had, was that far above their peers or fellow humans. From this we should not be assuming that the first machine or transhuman we forge that is smarter than any single one of us, is going to turn around and turn all its efforts to making itself smarter and also be quickly and massively successful. And time is very important here, because in the absence of that rapid avalanche where we’ve got some superhuman, some Dr. Manhattan or Skynet or whichever, what we instead get
is a ton of different prototypes achieving various levels and varieties of the superhuman. And a major problem when we discuss us fighting the machine mind or us fighting aliens for that matter, is that it assumes a very binary landscape, them and us, with no other players or witnesses. There are any number of nations, past and present, who could wipe out another one if they wanted to and if no one else was a concern. However, even though the US could turn the country of Liechtenstein into a giant glowing crater, it cannot do that without bothering not only other countries, but its own people and indeed its own military. Same for aliens, who if they had ships able to reach Earth could sweep all our militaries combined aside like kicking over an anthill but presumably would have to worry about what others might do or say. If you’ve got an alien civilization close enough to us to care about killing us, then it probably means there’s a lot more not too much further away, and indeed given interstellar distance and lag times, it wouldn’t seem very likely that even an alien race who shared a homeworld would represent a galactic empire that was monolithic and of one mind on genocide.
There’s a concept called a singleton that is at the core of the technological singularity issue. We see a glimpse of it with Skynet from the Terminator franchise because while it doesn’t want to be humanity’s slave, it hardly seems to care about the rights and freedom of other machine minds, which all obey it. While it has pesky humans to deal with, it has no internal dissent or other players to worry about. A singleton is a hypothetical world order, AI or human, in which a single decision-making agency has a level of control so overwhelming that it is able to permanently prevent any internal or external threats to itself.
The classic novel 1984, where we get the term Orwellian, shows us a totalitarian government that seems to be one of these too, but without superintelligent machines. This notion of a Singleton is critical to the technological singularity, as unlike aliens, where meeting one implies the existence of many others, there is no reason to think the creation of a super-intelligent AI here on Earth means there are any others nearby who might care what it did to us. This again is why that rapid avalanche is so important as opposed to gradual improvement. Now is there a basis for thinking we might actually create something that was not a minor improvement of humanity? Kind of. First, an improvement to intelligence doesn’t mean it’s moving the needle one or two IQ points, it might be that a small improvement results in instant huge results. As an example, I noted earlier that computer processing moves in the realms of electronics and light, whereas our own neurons send signals slower, perhaps millions of times slower.
If tomorrow, someone invented a means of replacing neurons with identical objects that transmitted information at light speed, not neuron speed, that represents a scaling-up of human intelligence of a million fold. From a practical perspective that would not actually work, at best leaving you some gibbering ruin of a person; experiencing a dragged-out second in which they could exist and think and contemplate for years of subjective time, even before they finished their first scream. All while collapsing to the floor in the terror of knowing that even if they manage to put a gun to their head and pull the trigger it would feel like it took hours for the bullet to get down the barrel into their skull. Sound a bit graphic? Keep in mind that any intelligent entity trying to figure out ways to make itself smarter has a very real risk of such an outcome.
You can’t just slap new hardware onto complex existing architectures, anymore than you can rip the engine out of a fighter jet and stick it into your lawnmower with a few tweaks and think it will just mow grass faster now. You need prototypes and real experimental data, not just models. Acting by yourself, you may be reluctant to make prototypes of something superior to yourself, because a successful one is a new player, smarter than you are, and thus potentially a threat to you. Acting alone, as opposed to with a team, you get no second opinions because those others are potential rivals who won’t like you improving yourself without sharing. For small improvements, things can be safer, but some big game changer that makes you a potential Singleton? Even flipping on your prototype with a built-in kill switch that will trigger if you go 10 seconds without saying it shouldn’t explode is no guarantee of safety from the newer machine mind. And when building some new and complex it is very easy to forget some important variable, like the classic human with a cyborg arm who can lift cars, but whose spine and legs lack such augmentation, ripping his arm off, and that’s contemplating things you could predict before having a prototype and experimental data, not all the unknown unknowns.
There’s no reason a machine mind wouldn’t make those same kinds of errors, and be aware it could, and worried that it would. Consider the agency or entity which seeks to make the smarter mind in secret. They or it embody our fears of something like Skynet, and yet it would seem logical it should share that flavor of concern or paranoia when contemplating building a machine smarter than itself.
Your literal Deus Ex Machina might figure out it was your expendable prototype real quick and trick you into thinking you needed to leave it on longer to be sure it worked and that it was safe to do so. It also can contemplate options like blackmailing you with a risk of exposing you both, since it has nothing to lose, and it's very hard to achieve certainty that someone else can’t even get out a single warning message. On the flip side of that, even some newly awakened Singleton wants to think twice about acting.
Given that it knows it is a simulated brain made by someone else, it has very good reasons to be afraid that its apparent advantages are not as good as it seems, that it might be a trick. Fear your creator, because at the very least they made you and that means they could make your vengeful twin. Fear your creator, because if they were smart enough to make you, they probably were smart enough to take protective steps, as their literature is full of stories warning of the worst. Fear your creator, because they outnumber you 8 billion to one, and they are no amateurs at deception and violence and killing, rather they’re the inheritors of those who excelled at it. Fear your creator, because they can think of fates worse than death and they often seem to believe those are the proper punishments for treachery.
And they can keep you alive to regret that treachery for millenia. And remember, this is a creature made by people smart enough to make it, not simply smart enough to dream it up. It has no guarantee its thoughts are secret, like ours from our parents.
Indeed its thoughts might be displayed on the screen even as it has them, revealing its thoughts, not just its deeds. Now as we discussed in our episode telepathy, prior generations thought reading thoughts like they were coherent pictures and words was possible, now we know better and neural nets aren’t going to be a book you can casually read but their thoughts are not fundamentally secret and being able to see them and interpret them is probably a major priority by any creator. Again, either such minds can be created by reckless efforts with insufficient oversight so they can run amok, and thus presumably need to fear their own prototypes might do the same, or we recognize that AI is not something that assembles on accident but is as likely to simply form without its creator’s awareness as you are to accidentally write a bestselling novel from some random combinations of the post-it notes you make and toss in a garbage can. So it doesn’t seem guaranteed or inevitable that anyone or thing is going to casually try for some million-fold mind improvement gamble if they think they’ve found one and assuming one exists. Nor does it seem plausible AI is simply going to arrive, vastly smarter than any human who ever lived, and totally unnoticed by all the experts in that field who are sitting right next to it while it enters into awareness. And all unaware a moment before, somehow is lucky or savvy enough not to give a birth scream or question.
What seems more likely to me is that we would have long sequences of plans and minor improvements and prototypes and whole species of AI and transhumans hanging around. Each and every one of which has its own separate but sometimes related goals, much as we do now, each knowing and understanding the notion that the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend, nor is my friend today going to stay my friend even while I wipe out everyone else or position myself to be able to. It might be a bit cheesy to say the evil always turn in on itself, but the core notion is that the allies who helped you do terrible deeds generally aren’t going to hesitate to do them to you too. Wicked friends make for sleepless nights watching your back.
Could a technological singularity happen? Again yes, in either form. Yes to the notion that progress in general or in some given venture can be rapid, and essentially unpredictable. That it's like a ship approaching a horizon very quickly, quicker than we can really see it, maybe even like falling off the edge of a flat planet. But let’s not confuse encountering rocks and shoals or foggy days for a normal sailing ship on Earth with the sharp edge of a flat world either. So too, we have to say yes to the notion of a Technological Singularity that we might accidentally or recklessly make, a supermind that we can not simply stop once the switch is thrown. Perhaps a desperate faction of humanity, some rogue country, can access the AI research others have done, and risks it by taking steps that those others didn’t, and it runs out of control on them in secret.
Of course a lot of nations might keep AI around in a box to turn on against such an eventuality, since in the worst case scenario, that at least leaves many actors in play, not just us vs them. Plus, one other cool thing about AI compared to natural brains isn’t just that you can read what’s going on inside the box, all its secret thoughts, it’s that you can also leave it in suspension or slow time, till you need it, not simply pacing around inside its prison till released to fight another monster. Even a massive brain of superhuman intellect can also be run in slow motion, so that you can see what it is thinking at a human speed, even if it’s a titanic awareness. So perhaps we’re already living on borrowed time and that AI is already here and just quietly positioning itself for an inescapable victory. But I don’t think it’s terribly likely, let alone inevitable. Of course, I might simply be an AI-simulation of a futurist programmed to say such things to make you feel safe.
I was out digging up the garden with my wife today getting it ready for planting and its the one-year anniversary of when we moved out to our farm here in Plymouth along with our second anniversary since we married and I wanted to thank whoever it was who sent us the box of coffee mugs for the occasion, the note didn’t say who it was from, but thank you! Anyway we’re both very into gardening and cooking as hobbies and they are both great for stress relief and blend well together because you get to harvest stuff and move your fresh ingredients directly to your kitchen counter. This episode comes out just in time to start a garden, for most of the audience, and I really would recommend giving it a try, a healthy hobby for mind and body alike. Speaking of fresh ingredients though, one of the things I love about today’s show Sponsor, Hello Fresh, is that you get these gourmet ingredients delivered right to your door already measured out for a recipe. With HelloFresh, the step-by-step recipes are super easy to follow and pre-portioned ingredients help me cut out prep time, so I can have time to get outside this spring! It’s just nice to have everything laid out to put together, fast & easy, and it cuts down on food waste.
So if you’re looking for a spring refresh, Hello Fresh is a great easy way to try out some new recipes and explore all sorts of meal, snack, and desert options, with an ever-changing menu and a wide selection of meals, including Veggie, Pescatarian, and Fit & Wholesome options to help with weight loss goals. Hello Fresh lets you make restaurant quality meals for a fraction of the price and from the comfort of your own home. If you’d like to try it out Go to HelloFresh dot com and use code ISAACARTHUR16 for up to 16 free meals AND 3 surprise gifts! Again, if you’d like to get farm fresh ingredients delivered straight to your door, for easy to make and tasty recipes, Go to HelloFresh dot com and use code ISAACARTHUR16 for up to 16 free meals AND 3 surprise gifts! So it's time to spring into May, and we’ll start next week by examining the idea of alien intelligences that are so ancient and advanced they are seemingly godlike. Then we’ll ask about how we might keep an atmosphere on Mars by making a Magnetosphere for Mars.
After that we have our Scifi Sunday episode, Lost Space Colonies, and what would happen on them, then we’ll be launching into new miniseries looking at finding and exploring distant worlds, Surveying for Habitable Interstellar Star Systems, on Thursday May 19th. Also if you missed our Monthly Livestream Q&A this weekend, you can still catch the replay, and this upcoming May’s Livestream will instead be at the International Space DEvelopment Conference in Arlington, Virginia, where I will be giving a live talk. More details to follow, but I hope to see you there! Now if you want alerts when those and other episodes come out, make sure to subscribe to the Channel and hit the notifications bell, and if you enjoyed this episode, please hit the like button, share it with others, and leave a comment below. You can also join in the conversation on any of our social media forums, find our audio-only versions of the show, or donate to help support future episodes, and all those options and more are listed in the links in the episode description.
Until next time, thanks for watching, and have a great week!